Portland author and Rolling Stone writer Randall Sullivan explores the phenomenon of holy visions – and comes away a believer
Portland author Randall Sullivan first read about it in a newspaper on Valentine’s Day 1994: A young woman in Boardman reported a vision of the Virgin Mary – on the upper right-hand corner of a landscape painting in the master bedroom of her mobile home.
Like any free-lance journalist, Sullivan always has his antennae up for a good story. But this one seemed more than a tad unlikely, given Sullivan’s literary pedigree: He was a Rolling Stone contributing editor who wrote about current events and whose previous books explored crime and culture in Los Angeles, including the murders of rap stars Tupac Shukar and Notorious BIG.
Also, he was raised by parents who, as he says, “took the Jesse Ventura view of religion – that it’s a crutch for the weak-minded.”
So what did he know or care about religious apparitions?
But Sullivan was intrigued and soon found himself in Eastern Oregon, interviewing Irma Munoz about what she and others claimed to have seen. That, in turn, led to an eight-year investigation that found him hopscotching from Rome to Scottsdale, Ariz., to Medjugorje – a village in Bosnia that has drawn millions of people ever since six young people in 1981 reported seeing Marian apparitions.
The result is “The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions,” a 450-page book released last week by Grove/Atlantic. Sullivan will read from it Tuesday at the University of Oregon.
Sullivan, 52, gives the label of “miracle detective” to the Catholic theologians and doctors charged by the Vatican with testing miracle claims. But ultimately the “miracle detective” of the book’s title is Sullivan himself, who ends up reporting on his own religious conversion and what it all may mean.
Here are some excerpts from a recent telephone interview:
Question: In this book, you really put yourself out there, in terms of your own spiritual confusion and struggle. Was that hard to write about?
Answer: “Yes” is the short answer. It was very difficult to do, but also completely necessary. There’s not a way to engage the subject of personal faith without getting personal. I hadn’t planned on it being so autobiographical, but I think it’s a much better book because it is.
Question: Much has already been written about apparitions of the Virgin Mary, especially those at Medjugorje. So why do we need another book on the topic?
Answer: Previous books have all been either devotionals or books intending to debunk – people taking one side or the other. My book is about the necessary interplay between faith and doubt.
Question: You report that you now consider yourself a Christian, with Catholic leanings. You’ve had your children baptized as Catholics. Do these developments tarnish your credibility as an unbiased reporter?
Answer: The idea of objectivity in general I question, and you certainly can’t engage a spiritual or religious experience from an objective view. There’s only one objective view, and that’s God’s.
William James, America’s greatest intellectual, wrote a long time ago that objectivity was a great farce, and that what’s most real and true and verifiable is our subjective experiences.
Question: You say you basically considered three explanations for visionaries’ claims: Either they’re lying, they’re delusional or they’re telling the truth. Which do you think it is, in most instances?
Answer: It can be any two or all three at the same time, when you recognize this interplay between the psychological and the spiritual in the human mind.
Question: What about Irma Munoz in Boardman?
Answer: I believe Irma had a genuine experience of some kind that was very personal. To say that is to acknowledge that there was some divine presence at play. I do believe that.
Question: In the case of the Medjugorje six?
Answer: I have no doubt that something has and is profoundly taking place in Medjugorje.
Question: You write that the moment you met Mirjana, one of Medjugorje’s six visionaries, you “knew she was neither a liar or a lunatic.” How could you tell?
Answer: On a subjective level, I had this overwhelming sense that this is someone who is not crazy and would not deliberately lie about her experience.
Question: The first time you climbed the peak of Krizevac (in Medjugorje), you got caught in a thunderstorm and had a religious experience in which you responded with nearly uncontrollable laughter, what you later refer to as “a sacred guffaw of liberation.”
Why do you think you responded that way?
Answer: I really think something profound happened to me that day. Even though I struggle with it on an intellectual level to this day, I do deeply believe that I received a blessing, a gift, a bolt from above that woke me up and shook me out of a sort of slumber.
Question: During that climb in the thunderstorm, you were befriended by a young woman who insisted that you wear her hat for protection from the elements.
Three-hundred pages later, you recount a moment where you come to believe that this woman may have been the revered St. Bernadette of Lourdes, France. What made you think so?
Answer: I had this subjective impression in that moment that that is who it was. I decided it was dangerous to embrace that thought, but also dangerous to reject it.
I put it in (the book) and then took it out a couple of times, but then the people I’m closest to convinced me it was really dishonest to leave it out. It was true to me on a personal level.
Question: You saw horrific things in Bosnia during the ethnic cleansing there.
But you write that the war there was also “tremendously clarifying” for you, and that you sensed almost immediately that the events in Medjugorje were “somehow inseparable” from the war. How so?
Answer: I think on some level that we can’t understand. On a personal level, it was the first time I’d seen war and horror on that scale.
In Mostar, everyone wondered where the next rocket was going to land and who was going to get it – it was almost like a lottery. It makes you understand that mortality is the ultimate common bond between us all.
Question: While in Bosnia, you witnessed the exorcism of a young woman that sounds like something straight out of “The Exorcist.”
You describe her foaming at the mouth, and how you were nearly overwhelmed by the stench of her vomit. How do you explain what you saw?
Answer: I couldn’t convince myself, no matter how hard I tried, that what I was watching was purely a psychological phenomenon. Something else was involved, something outside human agency.
My subjective experience is that this woman in some way was being delivered from evil.
Question: You quote a priest who is asked to investigate reports of a Virgin Mary sighting in Scottsdale as saying that reports of Marian apparitions “send as many people away from religion as they draw near.” Do you agree?
Answer: They do drive more skeptical, rational people away from religion, and they can also induce the credulous into a really naive version of religion – devotional cults without any perspective.
And yet they ultimately serve a higher purpose and that’s why they happen. Human beings need some form or measure of engagement with the invisible reality. You don’t have religion without some kind of direct experience of the supernatural.